Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012 | 10:07 p.m.
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Mitt Romney’s easy victory in Nevada’s Republican presidential caucuses might, in the long run, be less important than the fact that a surprising number of Republicans who could have participated Saturday chose to stay home.
Republicans’ disappointing turnout foreshadows difficulty energizing GOP voters in Nevada, a key swing state in November’s general election.
Turnout was unlikely to match 2008, when 44,000 Republicans participated in Nevada’s caucuses. Complete figures were not released by the state party as of 10 p.m. Saturday, an indication of a lackluster showing.
“It was less than what we had planned for,” Clark County caucus Director Michael Chamberlain said on KNPR.
Republican turnout in Washoe County, Nevada’s second largest, was 8 percent, well below the 20 percent some had predicted.
“We expected more. Obviously we hoped for more,” David Buell, chairman of the Washoe County Republican Party, said.
To illustrate how important voter enthusiasm is, quickly answer this question: Who won the 2008 Nevada Democratic caucus, when 116,000, many of them newly registered voters, caucused?
No, it wasn’t President Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton won.
Still, 10 months later, Obama, fueled by the party members’ energy and organization, carried Nevada by 12 percentage points over Republican John McCain.
The lesson: Caucus turnout signaled the excitement of the Democratic base and helped perpetuate it through the general election, as the party tapped that energy to organize itself.
Obama’s easy victory in 2008 was credited to the so-called “enthusiasm gap” — Democratic voters were excited for a change after eight years under Republican President George W. Bush. Republicans, meanwhile, were lukewarm on their nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
To be sure, the race is not decided. While Republican caucus turnout may not have met expectations, having Obama on the ballot will motivate Republicans to vote, party members say.
“When Obama is driving the turnout for Republicans, Republicans will turn out,” said Robert Uithoven, a Republican political consultant who has not endorsed a presidential candidate.
Yet Republican Party leaders hoped three years under Obama and a broken economy would have created more excitement among members of the party. And that doesn’t seem to have happened yet.
The Republican party has just over 400,000 active voters in Nevada. In 2008, the GOP had just under 400,000 active voters.
Amy Tarkanian, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, initially predicted that 70,000 Republicans would caucus.
It was a prediction reminiscent of 2007, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid estimated 100,000 Democrats would caucus, a number that seemed ridiculously high and sent Democratic Party operatives scurrying to temper expectations.
Tarkanian later tempered her estimate to 44,000.
Buell blamed Saturday’s low turnout on the difficult caucus process and the sour experience voters had in 2008, when there were fewer caucus locations, long lines and a lack of volunteers.
He also blamed nice weather and the Super Bowl — people were skiing or stocking up on food for the big game.
Low turnout is usually blamed on bad weather.
One purpose of a caucus — in addition to choosing the party’s nominee — is to recruit and excite voters. But that did not happen Saturday.
In Churchill County, one of the rural counties where Republicans need high turnout to offset predominantly Democratic areas like Clark County, turnout barely broke 10 percent.
In three of the four states to caucus or vote in primaries before Nevada, Republican turnout was up slightly, according to The New York Times.
In Florida, where Romney won decisively, it was down drastically.
Both parties, not surprisingly, spin turnout.
Democrats said Republicans should match Democratic turnout from 2008.
“If Republicans don’t reach 116,000, it will be extremely telling about the lack of enthusiasm for the Republican field,” said party spokesman Zachary Petkanas. “It will blow a hole in the idea of anti-Obama enthusiasm.”
Of course, the comparison to four years ago is not exact. In 2008, Democrats had a number of strong candidates running for office and organizing volunteers in the state.
In November, Republicans hope to hang the bad economy on Obama, the incumbent. And no message wins as consistently in politics as “throw the bum out.”
Buell, with the Washoe County Republicans, said the excitement may not have been apparent on Saturday but it’s there. Party fundraisers have been packed, he said.
“Republicans are excited to get a new president in,” he said. “Are they excited about going to a caucus? Apparently not.”
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.